Homeboy Sandman Stays Fly and Authentic on ‘There in Spirit’

Homeboy Sandman Stays Fly and Authentic on ‘There in Spirit’

Angel Del Villar II stands outside the Queens Center Mall in matching canary-colored sweatpants and a hoodie. The words “Queens School of Hard Knocks” are printed across his chest. The toes of his Adidas kicks hang over split pavement. Puffs of air leak out one side of his mouth while a beat plays: pressurized kick drums looped to a bittersweet piano melody in the left speaker, wind chimes in the right.

Angel is also known as Homeboy Sandman, the moniker for his prolific career as an MC. His rap style is brainy and fun. His songs are saturated with language. His rhymes are often delivered in bursts, the syllables intricately fastened with an auditory equivalent to barb-edged graffiti.

On his latest EP, There in Spirit, Sandman’s raps are airier, with less verbal clamor and a languid delivery that invites listeners’ attention to pool in the warm spaces within phonemes. Every instrumental he raps over was made by Detroit-based producer Illingsworth. Some tracks are enervated (“Something Fly”, “Keep That Same Energy”, “Stand Up”), others are melancholy (“Voices (Alright)”, “The Only Constant”, “Feels So Good to Cry”), and one song is celebratory and lighthearted (“Epiphany”).

Before he starts rapping in the video for “The Only Constant”, Angel just stands there, in a streak of sunlight in front of the Queens Center mall, breathing, with the blank face and relaxed stature of someone waiting for the bus. His baggy sweatpants/hoodie combo will shrink throughout the clip during whip-pan shots. His outfit, shoes and all, rests on a grass patch beside an apartment complex by the end of the song. Just a shell, no Sandman in sight.

“The Only Constant” is thematically dense, but both the music and Sandman’s lyrical delivery are breezy, making for a song that’s moving without dripping into sentimentality and raw without losing its poise. It’s carefully crafted art, the sort that wins modest acclaim from listeners with refined taste.

This sums up Homeboy Sandman’s level of success up to this point. He is an artist in the truest sense, a rap wordsmith of the first water. He doesn’t seem like he would ever be willing or able to release a big blowout spectacle that dilutes his rap flavor in exchange for a broader audience, and if the equation really is that simple, then it’s best this never happens.

But Sandman deserves his props. He’s a good guy to root for, and though he has claimed that journalism has little to no impact on readers’ actions, I’d like to put in a few words on behalf of his music and why it should be more widely appreciated.

The first time I call Homeboy Sandman, he’s walking home from the studio and looking forward to dinner. His girlfriend is making rice and beans.

“Is the food ready?” I hear him ask. I imagine he opens the door to a steam cloud of mouthwatering spice. He turns back to the phone and, with a smile in his voice, asks, “How long do you think this is going to take, Kyle?” He sounds eager to chow down, so I tell him to call back when dinner’s over.

“Dinner was fantastic,” he tells me later. “It was so good. I’m a different man.”

I share this anecdote because it underscores a sense of earnestness about Sandman that I’ve enjoyed in his music. Homeboy Sandman is just a dude. He gets excited when his girl makes rice and beans for dinner, and he’s thankful to a journalist who is cool with letting him call back after he’s cleaned his plate.

It’s not surprising that this is the same dude who, on his latest record, raps about ordering McDonald’s well water, tells himself to stop watching porn, and writes a song about how it feels good to cry. The video for “The Only Constant” features only Sandman as a character, moving through the unpeopled locales of his neighborhood, wearing his incrementally shrinking sweatsuit while rapping alone at the camera. He raps about how Queens has changed over the years, how he can’t read emojis on his cellphone, how he fantasizes about women he sees at the gym. In other words, the functions and tensions of a modest existence are rendered with clarity and empathy.

Homeboy Sandman represents the hip-hop ethos with a sound that’s not contemporary in a mainstream sense but not throwback in a way that suggests stylistic nostalgia. In short, he’s pure hip-hop.

At a moment when the term “hip-hop” is used to describe a variety of mutant sounds — some with a tenuous link back to the days of Peace, Love, Unity and Having Fun, some that are decried in public by rap’s older generations — Sandman’s brand of boom-bap is refreshing. Refreshing in that it doesn’t seem at all concerned with dissing current trends or getting caught up in disputes about rap’s genealogy. Sandman simply wants to sound fly. From his perspective, being fly is synonymous with being authentic.

“I make authentic art,” Sandman says. “I think that when people hear my rap they hear authentic art, and that’s not what they’re used to hearing when they hear rap anymore. People think of ‘old-school’ or whatever. Old-school rap was authentic art. It was people authentically expressing themselves, trying to be fly in new ways. When you hear somebody now who’s authentically expressing themselves, trying to be fly in new ways, it gives you that type of feeling, ’cause that’s what people used to think of when they thought of hip-hop.”

When I ask him how it feels to hold down “true-school” hip-hop (a term he finds clumsy) and to be an MC in the classic wordsmith sense, he responds by discussing the spiritual sensation that overcomes him while writing rhymes and recording music. He doesn’t evade the question but chooses to delve deeper.

“It feels amazing. It feels like I’m glowing when God sends me the rhyme. It feels like I’m floating. It feels otherworldly. It takes me out of the world and allows me to live in a different plane of reality, being an artist. It can’t feel any better. It doesn’t have any contrast to what else is going on. It has nothing to do with what else is going on.”

Throughout our interview, Sandman was reluctant to place himself in contrast to mainstream rappers whose sound and image flaunt the spoils of an opulent lifestyle in the faces of their fans. He doesn’t seem to think of himself in relation to anyone, really. Some hip-hop heads have a tiring tendency to diss the latest generation of big-name rappers as a way of validating the worth of underground hip-hop. Sandman doesn’t do this.

Homeboy Sandman Stays Fly and Authentic on ‘There in Spirit’

He’s a masterful rapper, having honed a style that’s affecting without ever reaching for the grandiosity that seems like a prerequisite for many rappers who get a lot more airplay. His success in the hip-hop world is not predicated on a disavowal of trends representing the opposite of what he stands for. Sandman is just a dude, but he doesn’t feel the need to brag about how he’s just a dude.

“I don’t take part in the untruth that people are given a pool of choices and making the choices that they want to make,” he explains. “That’s not what’s happening. It would be completely different if artists were all part of a pool and it was selected from that pool what goes on to be mainstream and what trends were going to go from a variety of different choices. That would be an entirely different thing. Perhaps if that were the case, it would make more sense for me to think about the juxtaposition between what I do and what somebody else does. But maybe it still wouldn’t.

“I’m very grateful,” he continues. “I grew up listening to rap, and I love rap. I love the art form. I grew up listening to LL Cool J and Slick Rick and Black Thought and The Roots crew. I listen to Supervillain Doom. I listen to De La. I grew up realizing they were doing mastery. And I wanted to do that. I wanted to do this type of mastery.

“I’m grateful that people want to listen to it, that they want to come to the show, but that isn’t the reason why I do it. I do it because it puts me in a glow. When I walk around I need to feel alive. I need to feel confident. For many years I smoked weed to give me a sense of calm. I’d go out there with weed and face the world. Now I face the world like, ‘I created something today. I’m powerful. I created something beautiful, something no one else can do.’ It makes me feel good. It’s an interaction with God.”

This lines up with the mission statement Sandman offers on “The Only Constant”: “Don’t ask me why I’m always flipping the script / I’m only trying to prove I exist.” Sandman’s music insists that forward-thinking art is not a contrivance or a reaction to trends (or at least not just a reaction to trends) but a natural outlet for self-expression. Honing one’s craft is a means of better examining life, and like all good art, it gives the audience a lens through which they can examine their own lives.

“Art is a special thing,” he muses. “Art is about love. It’s about authentic connection. Everybody don’t love music. There’s a lot of crossover now between art and entertainment. Art and celebrity. There’s a lot of different things, and the lines get blurred.”

For Homeboy Sandman, the lines are never blurred.

Production matters. Homeboy Sandman isn’t one of those rappers who stick to a signature sound. His first full-length, Nourishment (Second Helpings), features a scattering of styles, from chopped-up soul samples to a drumless Italian orchestral composition to the kind of hyphy-adjacent bop programmed with software-preset percussion that was prevalent in the mid-2000s. He’s kept this flavor-of-the-day approach throughout his career. Within a couple of tracks on 2012’s First of a Living Breed, you get catchy uptempo funk loops (“Whatchu Want From Me”), a dissonant synth dirge without a kick drum to its name (“Illuminati”), and workmanlike 4/4 boom-bap with prominent keyboards, a simple baseline, and a sanitary sound palette (“Sputnik”).

For an early stretch of his career, the beats on Homeboy Sandman records weren’t dynamic enough to be anything more than a serviceable carrier for his lyrics. The first major exception was his 2018 collaboration with Edan, Humble Pi. Edan’s leftfield concoctions — often a mutation between studio-abetted psychedelia à la the late ’60s and the tape-deck tinkerings of a nascent bedroom DJ — proved the perfect canvas to bolster the inherent weirdness laden in the raps of “your fellow cellar-dweller with a feather in the ink.“

The beats on There in Spirit, provided by Detroit-based producer Illingsworth, continue this upwards trajectory. “Keep that Same Energy” massages a block of low-end synthesizer with a string arrangement and tasteful dash of flute. “Voices (Alright)” combines electro percussion with a rearranged folk melody for an organically emotive instrumental that would hold up great on its own. The sonic flourishes on “Something Fly” scutter about like insects in the bathroom while the bassline flirts with distortion and comes out hefty enough to bust through flooring tiles. “Feels So Good to Cry” bobs its lush r&b melody below the phaser tide, and “Epiphany” closes the record with a fluid jeep-blaster for backpackers with incessantly sore necks.

“Illingsworth is magnificent,” Sandman says. “He’s prolific as a beatmaker, and he’s an amazing rapper.”

“Illingsworth, I don’t know how many beat tapes he’s put out,” he continues. “Maybe 20 or 30? I don’t know. I listened to them, and I got to a point where I was listening to them, ’cause I love beats, and I found beats that I loved so much that, even though I have a stash of beats, I had to write to them.

“I have never needed so badly to rap to so many beats that were already released… I hope people go look for these beats. Go listen to all those Illingsworth beat tapes, ’cause they are so enriching.”

“My life is split up into blessings and distractions,” Sandman raps on “The Only Constant”.

“Voices (Alright)” offers a list of potential distractions in his life: porn, alcohol, dwelling on past mistakes, television, greed, and the internet, to name a few. The song plays out like a self-help manual of mostly negative reinforcement, a list of don’t do this and that’s. The effect for listeners is akin to reading a diary crammed with mantras or finding yourself in the vexed mind of someone trying to will himself towards productivity. Even when he’s telling himself to breathe, spread love, and take time to heal, you get the sense Sandman is berating himself, slapping a palm against his forehead.

This doesn’t come off as didactic. The message isn’t aimed at the audience. Any inspiration listeners take from the song is the result of empathizing with a human compelled to record a self-help song solely for himself. It’s not hard to imagine Sandman strapping on some headphones in a moment of weakness and playing this song to remind himself of the person he wants to be.

“Voices (Alright)” has the least dynamic delivery of any song on There in Spirit. There’s no wordplay, no clever verbal antics. Yet the song is the record’s emotional core, the most direct dispatch on a theme that peeks through the EP: self-improvement through self-examination.

“Something Fly” offers some of the same advice as “Voices (Alright)” but directs it towards the audience. Sandman tells us to embrace the present, to read instead of trying to make the cover of magazines, to keep focused. He tells us to “get rid of all the bottles and cans,” mirroring his advice to himself to stop drinking. He tells us to “ask and receive something,” just as he tells himself to “keep faith.”

Stylistically, Sandman’s rap on “Something Fly” has more flavor than “Voices (Alright)”, and the beat is more immediate, easier to dance or nod your head to. The song is a better candidate for radio play, and the same can be said about “Stand Up” and “Keep That Same Energy”, in which Sandman boasts about his work ethic and unique rap style, respectively.

But “Voices (Alright)” cuts deeper. It’s in the no-frills delivery, the repetition, the way Sandman shapes the track to approximate the feeling of being stuck inside your head, trying to break through mental barricades with mere language directed right back at the same vessel in a perpetual tape loop. It’s in the sense that the song never resolves itself, that it was made to be played in moments when it’s most needed, and that it will always be needed, just hopefully less and less as life progresses.

With “Voices (Always)”, Sandman argues that to prove you exist, you have to start by examining yourself. Of course, he’s also suggesting that self-examination is more than just the starting point. Even when you have a platform large enough to reach listeners the world over, you must continually look inwards, critiquing yourself and holding yourself accountable in order to squeeze something you consider valuable from life. It’s both a constant struggle and a necessity, and anyone who claims to have transcended this universal human tension is lying or kidding themselves.